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Carolina madtom. Photo by D Biggins, former USFWS.

Carolina madtom

Noturus furiosus

  • Taxon: Freshwater Fish
  • Range: Neuse River and Tar River basins, North Carolina
  • Status: At-risk species

Appearance

The Carolina madtom is a small catfish, reaching a maximum length of nearly five inches. When compared to other madtoms, the Carolina madtom has a short, chunky body and a distinct color pattern. Three dark saddles along its back connect a wide, black stripe along its side extending from its snout to the base of its tail. The adipose fin has a dark blotch that does not quite reach the fin’s edge, giving the impression of a fourth saddle. Yellowish to tan blotches space the saddles, while the rest of the fish is tan. The belly is un-speckled, and the tail has crescent-shaped brown bands near its edge and center. Its pectoral spines have well-defined serrated (saw-like) projections along both margins. Stinging spines in its pectoral fins, earn this fish the “furiosus” title that is part of it’s scientific name.

A photo of a catfish with lines describing specific areas of the fish.
Carolina Madtom identification key by Jose Barrios, USFWS.

Habitat

The species occurs in riffles, runs, and pools in medium to large streams and rivers. Ideally, it inhabits fresh waters with continuous, year-round flow and moderate gradient in both the Piedmont and Coastal Plain physiographic regions. Optimal substrate for the Carolina madtom is predominantly silt-free, stable, gravel and cobble bottom habitat, and it must have cover for nest sites, including under rocks, bark, relic mussel shells, and even cans and bottles.

A fish's head emerging from under rocky debris.
Can you find the Carolina madtom? Photo by C Wood, NCWRC.

Diet

The Carolina madtom is a sight feeder most active during the night, with peaks at dawn and dusk. It eats bottom-dwelling invertebrates such as larval midges, mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies and beetle larvae.

Original hand-drawn illustration of the Carolina madtom catfish.
Illustration of Carolina madtom by Jordan, 1888.

Historical range

The Carolina Madtom is a freshwater fish species endemic to the Tar-Pamlico, and Neuse River (including the Trent) drainages in North Carolina.

A map of known Carolina madtom population locations across east-central North Carolina.
Carolina madtom historical distribution. Map by Brimleyana.

Current range

The Carolina madtom’s presence in the Neuse River Basin is greatly reduced from what historical records show.

Counties where the Carolina madtom is known or believed to occur:

  • Craven
  • Durham
  • Edgecombe
  • Franklin
  • Granville
  • Greene
  • Halifax
  • Johnston
  • Jones
  • Lenoir
  • Nash
  • Orange
  • Pitt
  • Vance
  • Wake
  • Warren
  • Wayne
  • Wilson
A map of current Carolina madtom populations locations across east-central North Carolina.
Carolina madtom current distribution. Map by USFWS.

Conservation challenges

The Carolina Madtom faces a variety of threats from declines in water quality, loss of stream flow, riparian and instream fragmentation, deterioration of instream habitats, and expansion of the invasive predator Flathead catfish. These threats are expected to be exacerbated by urbanization and climate change.

Pollution

The Carolina madtom needs clean, flowing water to survive. Human-caused increases in river water temperatures have been identified as a factor in the decline of the madtom.

Reduced stream flow

Drought and impoundments slow down the natural flow of streams, compromise water quality, hamper fish movement, limit available prey, and prevent waste and fine sediments from flushing out of the stream.

Agriculture and development

Streams with urbanized or agriculturally dominated riparian corridors tend to have more sediment in the water and unstable banks and/or impervious surface runoff, resulting in less suitable streams for fish as compared to habitat with forested corridors.

Habitat fragmentation

Dams and perched or undersized culverts limit the madtom’s ability to distribute throughout streams to find good quality habitat. For example, the construction of Falls Lake dam in the upper Neuse isolated Carolina madtoms in the upper basin from the middle Neuse basin. Isolated or patchy distributions of fish may limit genetic exchange.

Invasive species

The flathead catfish is an invasive top predator in the Neuse and Tar River basins, upon which no other creatures prey. It feeds mostly on other fish. Hydrilla is an invasive, submerged aquatic plant that forms nearly impenetrable mats of stems and leaves at the surface of the water. It alters stream habitat, decreases flows, and contributes to sediment buildup in streams.

A FWC biologist holding a huge catfish on an electrofishing boat.
Flathead catfish. Photo by FWC.

Recovery plan

A recovery plan has not been completed for this species.

Partnerships, research and projects

The Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission are working with numerous partners to conserve the Carolina madtom and restore its habitat while meeting the socioeconomic, political and cultural needs of current and future generations. Land trusts are targeting key parcels for acquisition. Federal, state, and university biologists are surveying and monitoring species occurrences, and recently funding has been secured to implement captive propagation and species population restoration via augmentation, expansion, and reintroduction efforts.

Madtom motels

A ceramic bowl built to protect small fish in the wild.
An upside-down madtom motel. Photo by Sarah McRae, USFWS.

Conservation Fisheries Inc. received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife foundation to collected Carolina madtom individuals, juveniles and eggs and it is attempting to propagate the madtom in captivity. With help from NC State, they designed these nifty structures dubbed “Madtom Motels” to provide cover for nest sites in the wild. The fish that Conservation Fisheries Inc produce in captivity will go into the wild to augment the current populations and expand the madtom’s reach into historical habitat.

Nutrient management plans

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has special nutrient management plans for the Tar-Pamlico River Basin and the Neuse River Basin to help reduce nutrients that cause excessive growth of microscopic or macroscopic vegetation and lead to extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.

How you can help

Individuals can do a number of things to help protect freshwater species, including:

  • Conserving water to allow more water to remain in streams.
  • Using pesticides responsibly, especially around streams and lakes, to prevent runoff into fish habitats.
  • Controlling soil erosion by planting trees and plants to avoid runoff of sediments into freshwater areas.
  • Stop the expansion of invasives like the flathead catfish. If caught, keep fish - do not return to the stream!

Subject matter experts

Useful resources

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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